The History of Methamphetamine
Methamphetamine, also called meth, crystal, ice, or chalk is in the stimulant class of drugs. It has an extremely high potential for abuse and addiction. So much so, that it is classified as a Schedule II stimulant within the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Controlled Substance Act (CSA).
The predominant bulk of methamphetamines that are being abused are those that are produced in what the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) terms as “superlabs,” within the U.S. or Mexico. However, they do note a rising concern—meth may also be produced in small, individually established labs with ingredients that the manufacturing individual can procure on the street or at a store, the most notable being pseudoephedrine, a component of many medications used to treat colds. These labs may occur in people’s homes, hotel rooms, or even in the woods in rural areas. Manufacture of this drug makes these settings highly toxic and dangerous due to the mass contamination that occurs during processing.
Meth has an interesting history. Originally created for medical purposes, meth was produced with the intent that it could be used to treat nasal congestion or as a bronchial inhaler. It came into being in the beginning of the 20th century and was first synthesized from another drug, amphetamine.
Methamphetamine may still be used medically, albeit rarely, and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the prescribed dose is significantly smaller than those that are abused. When used this way, it may be utilized as a treatment for ADHD or weight loss, as is common with it progenitor, amphetamine.
Despite the fact these two drugs have some similarities, such as the way they impact a user, there is a predominant and significant difference—its qualities as a stimulant are far more potent in equivalent doses of the drugs. This is also due to the fact that its effects on the central nervous system last longer in a more damaging way.
Understanding This Drug’s Mechanism Of Impact
The drug occurs in various forms and is most typically taken orally, snorted, smoked, or injected. The latter two methods offer immediate results, because the drug enters the bloodstream and brain very fast, as explained by NIDA. Due to this, users that administer the drug this way achieve a feeling that the other ways do not offer—a rush, or “flash” that occurs for only a few minutes. Taken the other ways, people experience more delayed results—snorting impacts a user in 3-5 minutes, whereas consuming it orally takes even longer, with effects occurring in 15-20 minutes. Despite the fact that these ways do not offer a rush, a person still experiences a high and a sense of euphoria.
Structurally speaking, meth is similar to amphetamine, and also, interestingly enough, dopamine. The manner in which meth affects this critical neurotransmitter is different from other stimulants. In comparison to cocaine, its half-life is far greater, falling at 12 hours in comparison to cocaine’s 90 minutes. Taken in lower doses, it will work similarly to cocaine, in the manner that it does not allow for the re-uptake, or absorption, of dopamine.
This issue is further compounded, however, for the difference that meth also increases the production of dopamine. These two effects put together result in an overabundance of this neurotransmitter “which can be toxic to nerve terminals,” as warned by NIDA. Despite this risk, it is this effect people seek—these heightened levels are what’s thought to create the pleasurable feelings associated with this drug.
Effects Of Methamphetamine
When a person uses this drug, their body and brain respond accordingly, exhibiting various symptoms. These symptoms may change depending on the frequency and intensity of use, and also due to the length of time that a person has used for. Many of the side effects are those commonly associated with stimulants in general, including increasing a person’s degree of physical activity and sense of being awake. An individual may also experience a suppressed appetite.
Also because of the intense stimulating nature, the risk of cardiovascular concerns is great. The rhythm of your heartbeat may change and become either irregular or tachycardic (fast), or you may experience hypertension (raised blood pressure). Other short-term side effects include:
- A sense of curiosity
- Increased self-esteem
- Lessening fatigue
- Better attention
- Dilated pupils
- Wan and sickly complexion
- Excessive sweating
- Hands quivering
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Halitosis (bad breath)
- Quickened respiration
Even short-term use may result in sudden death.
Like every drug of abuse, prolonged and excessive use carries specific, and more harmful long-term risks. Meth changes the way a person experience’s life. Eventually, a person may find that they can only feel pleasure when using the drug (anhedonia)—life no longer offers them these feelings when sober. Paired with the following, a person’s abuse may gain even more momentum.
Due to the greater frequency of drug seeking and using, a person may develop a tolerance, as they find they need to use greater and greater amounts of meth to create the desired effect. This is indicative of the greatest long-term effect: addiction. Chronic use can also create some frightening mental and cognitive changes with psychotic characteristics. A person using the drug in the long term may experience, as outlined by NIDA:
- Being easily distracted
- Confused states
- Chronic trouble sleeping
- Altered moods
- Violent or aggressive outbursts
- “Repetitive motor activity”
- Sensory hallucinations (visual and auditory)
- Various delusions
- Delusory Parasitosis (thinking bugs are crawling under your skin)
- “Punding,” or receptive motions and engagement in tasks (i.e. excessive doodling)
- Involuntary and uncontrollable movements
- Possible deficits in fine motor dexterity
- Losing weight
- Serious dental damage
- Suppressed immune system
- Suicidal ideation
In addition to these risks, a person’s brain may be even further affected.
One of the most serious concerns of a meth addiction is that the psychotic symptoms that we outlined above may linger even after a person stops using meth, for a period of several months to years, or even, in the worst case—indefinitely. It has been shown that instances of stress often precede this, what is termed methamphetamine psychosis. These things manifest due to alterations within your brain and occur more readily in people who use large quantities of the drug for longer periods of time.
A study, “Neurologic manifestations of chronic methamphetamine abuse,” originally published in Neurologic Clinics, sought to examine the widespread impact of methamphetamine abuse on a person’s brain. They speak in greater depth of methamphetamine-induced psychosis, comparing its symptoms to schizophrenia. The study notes that the two most predominant and common symptoms are auditory hallucinations and delusions of persecution. In less cases, a person may have psychomotor retardation and poverty of speech, a condition where a person, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, has a “Marked deficit in spontaneous speech, and replies to questions that are perfunctory, monosyllabic, or unforthcoming,” the latter being common in schizophrenia as well.
Research is yet divided on the origins of this, as some feel that this affliction may arise due to the neurotoxicity from the resultant dopamine shifts within a person’s brain. The second camp believes that individuals with mental health disorders may choose to abuse meth more readily, hence, the meth abuse exacerbates preexisting facets of these disorders. In either capacity, this condition is serious and many times debilitating, especially when paired with other damage to the brain that may occur.
The Impact Of Meth On The Brain
The chemical burden of this oppressive drug has a huge capacity for changing the very functioning of a person’s brain.
As shown both in human and animal participants, the neurotransmitter instability extends beyond dopamine, as the study noted that meth “damages dopamine and serotonin nerve terminals.” It is theorized that this is why users slip into periods of intense and disabling depression when they stop using and find they are unable to feel good without the drug. The mental health disorders that may result in the long term are continuing depression, anxiety, and the aforementioned psychosis.
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The excess levels of dopamine that we spoke of—both within and surrounding the cells—can create a state of neurotoxicity, “a cascade of events including oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and excitatory neurotoxicity,” that causes brain damage. The study continues to say that the hyperthermic state that is common from meth abuse may intensify this condition.
One frightening cognitive impact that directly influences the risk of continued abuse, is to a person’s episodic memory, or the memory that allows an individual to “consciously re-experience past events.” The implications of this on abuse are that a person may fail to look back on their past behaviors and recall the detriment or damage of their ways, thus providing no protection from committing the same mistakes, or patterns of drug use again.
Dangers Of Methamphetamine Abuse
As we’ve noted, a person may become delusional and begin to believe that they have an infestation of bugs that are biting them, also termed “formication.” When people fall prey to this, they very commonly and compulsively begin itching or picking at their skin, to relieve the effect of these “crank bugs,” to the extent that scarring, abscesses and even infection may form. The latter two are more apt to occur in cases of poor hygiene, which is one characteristic of addiction, as a person negates personal grooming habits.
Over time, individuals abusing meth may develop what is termed “meth mouth,” an array of dental concerns ranging from tooth loss, fractures and tooth decay and cavities, insofar that users, even at a young age, may require dentures. Chronic meth use suppresses saliva production and also causes a person to develop bruxism (teeth grinding) or clenching.
Due to the numerous neurologic complications that result from meth abuse, a person may experience seizure or stroke, which could lead to a fatality in the most severe cases. The chemical burden of this drug and the stress it exerts on the body may also cause kidney or liver damage, lung disease or an infection of the heart.
Using meth also increases the user’s risk of contracting a transmissible disease, principally HIV and hepatitis C. This risk is especially high for those who choose to inject, due to the common practice of sharing dirty or used needles.
Individuals who are on a binge may not sleep for a period of days—to the extent that they may be awake for upwards of 15 days. The Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) asserts that this is the most dangerous period of abuse, called “tweaking,” as a person may become “irritable and paranoid.” These people, called “tweakers,” may appear normal, however, upon closer inspection CESAR tells us to look for rapid eye movement, a quavering voice, and fast or fitful movements. It is important to maintain distance for safety’s sake from individuals within this state.
Methamphetamine is different from other stimulants, especially cocaine, in the capacity that it remains in your brain for a longer period of time, and the drug remains in its original form in your body. Paired with the “binge and crash” pattern that is prevalent with meth abuse, this creates a dangerous potential for serious risks. Despite the fact that a person may not feel the drug as they’d like to, due to these characteristics it is still very active and present within their body and brain. As they continue to binge, these levels continue to build. Prolonged use like this puts a person at a high risk of overdose.
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- National Institute on Drug Abuse — Methamphetamine
- U.S. National Library of Medicine — Neurologic manifestations of chronic methamphetamine abuse
- Center for Substance Abuse Research — Methamphetamine